The majority of women around the world work in low-paid positions, the informal economy, or in agriculture jobs with few protections. These are the sectors that are being worst hit by the economic impacts of COVID-19, and as the crisis drags on and worsens across poorer countries, millions will be left without work, and in poverty.
740 million women work in the informal sector, which has been worst hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus. Women are less likely to benefit from recovery and stabilisation measures, as gender and social norms prohibit access to economic opportunities and financial resources.
A new study by CARE International reveals how the global pandemic is having a real and immediate economic impact on women in the developing world. Here, 45 million women work in the garment industry, and face the loss of their sole income; while nearly 44 million female domestic workers across the world, and the tens of millions of poor rural women reliant on farming, can no longer access fields and livelihoods.
Mareen Buschmann, CARE International UK’s policy specialist on Women’s Economic Empowerment, says: “the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic and financial impact are deeply gendered. Women and girls are disproportionately impacted – they bear a higher infection risk given they make up over 70 per cent of the global health workforce, and they face higher rates of insecurity as they tend to work in informal jobs with little legal and social protection, so will be hit first and hardest by an economic downturn.”
CARE’s analysis found that an estimated 90 per cent of female entrepreneurs participating in CARE’s projects in Sri Lanka have seen their income decrease in recent weeks; particularly as their supply chains have been critically disrupted. The effects extend beyond economic repercussions, as the report also reveals how female entrepreneurs in Guatemala are also struggling to meet basic needs, such as food and water, for their families.
Despite this, the COVID-19 crisis also offers a unique opportunity. Prioritising women and economic recovery along more equitable lines is not just morally right, it is also economically practical. Women have long been seen as critical agents of post-crisis recovery, and investing in gender equality has the potential to stimulate the economy and reverse losses to global wealth by up to $160 trillion, according to the World Bank.
Buschmann notes: “the pandemic offers policy makers the unique opportunity to turn crisis into a momentum to reset and build back more just and inclusive societies by driving a new model for equitable growth. Embracing female leadership is key to this”. Buschmann continues: “if this chance is missed, the crisis will only reinforce existing inequalities and roll back decades of progress on women’s and girls’ justice and rights. Without a strong focus on gender in the political response, the economic impact of COVID-19 will ruin and cost lives. Recovery needs to prioritise gender equality, providing women with equal opportunities and an equal voice.”
Key findings of the report include:
- Women and girls face a particular risk of infection due to the types of work that they do. For example, women make up over 70 percent of the global health and social workforces
- Economic downturns particularly affect women and girls. Many are employed in the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic — including domestic work, entertainment, retail, smallholder farming, tourism, and travel — as well as in the informal economy and as migrant workers.
- Women’s and girls’ economic opportunities are diminished. As unpaid care burdens are increasing, opportunities to make an income are decreasing, and women entrepreneurs may find it difficult to rebuild their livelihoods.
- Women’s and girls’ access to financial services is decreasing. An economic downturn will especially affect women’s financial inclusion, including access to loans and savings mechanisms. However, access to these resources will be vital for overcoming the crisis.
- Gender-based violence — of all types — is on the rise and risking lives. Women and girls are more exposed to domestic violence while quarantined with their abusers. Financial stress and unemployment are further contributing to an increased risk, and work-based violence has also been increasing, particularly for frontline workers.
- Lack of women’s and girls’ leadership and voice and regressing norms. Women and girls are already marginalised from decision-making within their households, communities, and the wider economy, yet frequently hold the key to solutions given their role in communities. COVID-19 further puts these hard-won gains at stake.